Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice. Pilate saith unto him, What is truth? And when he had said this, he went out again unto the Jews, and saith unto them, I find in him no fault at all.
– John 18: 37-38
PILATE: Then you are a king.
JESUS: It’s you who say I am. I look for truth and find that I get damned.
PILATE: But what is truth? Is truth unchanging law? We both have truths. Are mine the same as yours?
– Jesus Christ Superstar, “Trial Before Pilate”
Gudo Nishijima used to say, “The truth is only one.” In terms of science, it’s hard to argue with this. The atomic weight of hydrogen is a specific value. This is not a matter of opinion. It doesn’t change according to the religion or race of the person who measures it. If you do your calculations with the incorrect value for the atomic weight of hydrogen, your experiment will go wrong.
People still argue about who killed John F. Kennedy. I happen to think it was Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone. But even if you disagree, you would certainly agree that there is a single objectively true answer to the question of who killed JFK. It was one person, or it was a group of conspirators. But whoever actually did it isn’t a matter of opinion or faith. There is a factual answer.
Over Christmas this year it became clear to me that a person who has been a valued mentor to me for most of my life was being taken advantage of by someone who was lying to him and stealing from him. I confronted both him and the person who has been duping him. That’s when I found out my trusted mentor values lies more than the truth and that there was nothing I could do to change that.
His decision will have consequences. At some point, maybe not too long from now, the person who has been lying to my once trusted mentor will steal all that my ex-mentor has to steal and he will no longer have the ability to provide more. It’s possible he’ll then begin to understand that the truth, though harsh, is more reliable than lies. Or maybe by that time it won’t matter.
Lies may be comforting in the short term. But they cause problems. If you believe things that are untrue, you’ll make the wrong decisions. History is full of great examples, like Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan, wherein whole societies bought into ideas that turned out to be untrue and then paid the price.
When Buddhist nerds get together sometimes they talk about absolute truth and relative truth. I’ve never been able to make heads or tails out of this idea. So I am supremely unqualified to explain it. I think it’s the notion that there are things that are true in some sort of abstract absolute world that are untrue in our everyday lives. Or something like that.
I don’t pay much attention to ideas that don’t make sense to me. I don’t believe in two truths. I agree with Nishijima Roshi that there is only one truth.
When I was young I decided I wanted to pursue the truth. It was the most important thing to me. I looked for a way to find the truth and I found zazen. I’ve worked with zazen now for most of my life and I feel like I made the correct choice.
There is a big difference between the truth and an explanation or description of the truth. You can describe the same truth in a variety of different ways. All of those different ways might be true, in the sense that they are honest and represent the best efforts of the people who attempted to put those truths into words. Sort of like that old story about the elephant and the blind guys.
But in that old story, each blind guy makes the mistake of believing his part of the elephant represents the whole thing. So we have to watch ourselves when we express our little portions of the greater truth. We need to be honest about the bits of the greater truth that we experience, while understanding that whatever lies outside of that experience might not be exactly like the part we have in our hands. And we have to be aware that even this is incomplete, that there are things even within our own experience that we are unable to perceive clearly or express in any coherent way.
So the truth does matter. When we accept what is true we can act accordingly and our chances of falling flat on our asses are thereby reduced. On the other hand, no one of us knows or perceives the entirety of the truth. We are always blind to certain aspects, no matter how much we meditate or how clearly we are able to observe things.
Some of us seek after a glimpse of the Ultimate Truth. I know I did. My feelings after working on that particular conundrum for a number of years is that you can get what amounts to a kind of peek behind the curtain if you really, really make some serious and sustained effort over a long period of time.
But what you get for your time and effort isn’t exactly Ultimate Truth. At least not in the way we usually imagine it. It’s more like you’re one of those blind guys groping at the elephant and, just for a second, you gain sight. But since you’ve been blind for your whole life, the very experience of sight itself is totally overwhelming. You’re not able to make a whole lot of sense of what you’re seeing. It’s as if you’ve never perceived colors before in your entire existence and all of a sudden there are red things and blue things and green things and… oh my!
You come away from the experience not so much feeling like at last you have understood the Ultimate Truth as feeling like at last you’ve confirmed for yourself that there is an Ultimate Truth, even if you can’t be quite certain what, exactly, that Ultimate Truth actually is.
But I’ll tell you something else. Just knowing that much is pretty mind blowing.
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Our Saturday morning zazen in Culver City now starts at 10:00 am!
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I’ve got a new book coming out soon! Stay up to date on its release schedule, my live appearances and more by signing up for our mailing list on the contact page!
April 22, 2016 New York, New York Interdependence Project
April 23, 2016 Long Island, New York Molloy College “Spring Awakening 2016”
October 23-28, 2016 Benediktushof Meditation Centrum (near Würzburg, Germany) 5-Day Retreat
Every Monday at 8pm there’s zazen at Silverlake Yoga Studio 2 located at 2810 Glendale Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90039. Beginners only!
Every Saturday at 10:00 am (NEW TIME!) there’s zazen at the Veteran’s Memorial Complex located at 4117 Overland Blvd., Culver City, CA 90230. Beginners only!
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